Artifact Spotlight: The Desecration of El Campo Santo Cemetery

By Paul R. Spitzzeri

On February 3, 1906, Walter P. Temple filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court against the owner of the 75-acre Workman Homestead, Lafayette F. Lewis, over the desecration of El Campo Santo, the cemetery in which Temple’s parents, grandparents, most of his siblings and others were buried.

The suit alleged that from October 1905 and before, Lewis, an Anaheim resident who purchased the Homestead in 1903, decided to dismantle the cemetery, including the razing of the circa 1860 chapel, the bricks of which were sold, as well as three of the enclosure walls.  In December, Lewis was arrested after a complaint and a misdemeanor criminal charge was contemplated, though this soon morphed into a civil suit.  The claim was for $1,000 in property and $5,000 for punitive damages, and the complaint sought to prohibit any further damage or even access to the burying ground by Lewis.

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In 2002, the museum received a large gift of Workman and Temple family papers from Gabriela Quiroz Temple Sutter, the widow of Walter Temple’s eldest son, Thomas, including a copy of the complaint filed by attorney Johnstone Jones and other documents.  These include a memorandum of costs and disbursements resulting from the complaint, including a list of witnesses, including descendants of the Temples and Workmans, as well as the Rowlands and other locals who had relatives buried in El Campo Santo.

Evidence was submitted that Lewis posted a sign asking relatives of those interred in the cemetery to “kindly remove the same at once, as the owner desires to plant barley here.”  Witnesses alleged that he asserted his right to do what he wanted to with his property.

It took some time, but a decision was finally rendered by Judge Walter Bordwell in July 1907, who observed in his decision that El Campo Santo had been used from about 1862 and that its use over the decades constituted an easement for the families of those buried in the cemetery.  Lewis, consequently, had no legal standing to destroy the burial ground, Bordwell continued, ordering him to restore the walls or pay damages for the cost of someone else to do so.

Rather than submit to this penalty, Lewis simply sold the ranch in December for $30,000 to Thomas H. Pratt and Eugene Bassett.  After just under a decade of ownership, during which the remains of the cemetery were left undisturbed, the pair sold the Homestead in late November 1917 for $40,000.

The buyer was Walter P. Temple, beneficiary of a lucky find of oil on his Montebello-area ranch the previous summer and who certainly could not have imagined in 1907 that he would later buy the property he worked to protect.  Temple’s first priority was to renovate the cemetery, including building a mausoleum to house his family members on the site of the chapel, and other improvements.

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